Thursday, August 20, 2009


I've recently started working as a Berlin correspondent for the art website Artslant. My picks this month were Romantische Maschinen at the Georg Kolbe Museum and Allora + Calzadillaat the Temporäre Kunsthalle.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Berlin on the Brink

Berlin on the Brink is an editorial about California artists in Berlin commissioned this Spring by the now defunct California art magazine, Art Week.

Berlin on the Brink
By Jesi Khadivi

My dreams of living in Berlin began in 2002. I was pursuing a degree in Art History and Theory, my apartment was both too expensive and too small, and Berlin’s burgeoning east side seemed like everything post-9/11 New York City was not: spacious, cheap and adventurous. I understand now that my feelings about the city were inspired by collegiate romanticism and disillusionment. New Yorkers at the time were obsessed by Berlin; the idea that German capital had the gritty charm of Manhattan in the 80s inspired a few of the 10,000 Americans that now live in the haupstadt to cross the Atlantic. But relating to Berlin solely through the guise of Nan Goldin era NYC is the equivalent of calling San Francisco “San Fran.” It establishes a false intimacy with the city that only illuminates how little the speaker knows about it. The same goes for Berlin mayor, Klaus Wowereit’s, oft-repeated “Poor but Sexy” motto, which the mayor used in an attempt to hype his financially ailing city to investors. When I moved to Berlin in 2007, I was surprised to not find a cheaper, utopian New York. But I did like what I saw: a laid back hybridization of art forms and practices. Everyone I met had a project (or three) and, even as a foreigner, I encountered an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm and genuine warmth for all sorts of creative endeavors.

After a year in Los Angeles, I returned to Germany in February 2009. Though Berlin is indelibly linked to New York in the American cultural imagination, my first night at O Tannenbaum, a free form bar that hosts electronic music, film nights, informal dinners and others arts oriented events in Neuköln, showed a growing migration between Berlin, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Berlin’s sister city. Although the director of O Tannenbaum is Dutch and the venue has an international following, the film night I attended had a distinctly Oaklandish feel, like a little Bay Area in exile. The night had all of the elements of a Bay Area DIY art event: no entrance fee, affordable and delicious vegetarian food and, most importantly, a dedicated and interconnected web of followers. The crowd at O Tannenbaum was mostly an audience of producers. One thing that has become clear to me on my second pass through Berlin, is that regional identity is nothing more than a shared experience. The bay area contingent that patronizes O Tannenbaum and some of its curators side projects are drawn together by friendship and mutual respect, but their reasons for being in Germany vary from marriage and grad school, to simply wanting a massive change.

Erin Weber, a recent CCA alum and the gracious host of the event, cooked a meal and presented the film Fantastic Planet. Weber has been in Berlin for a year and a half. She works in myriad collaborative capacities, running a small publication and audio-visual performance group called Pyramid Press and Dancing Pyramid, respectively, with the German artist Mella Ojeda. Many of the American artists based in Berlin pass through for only a year or two. One artist told me that Berlin was “the number one destination post graduation for CCA student” and “a pit-stop en route to American graduate schools.” Weber, however, plans to stay. When asked where she saw herself eventually settling down, Weber simply says, “here,” and went on to explain that she had worked so hard building a network of creative friends and collaborators, that it would be silly to pick up and move back to the states immediately.

Alicia Reuter, an American art-critic and curator who has settled permanently in Berlin, cites a lack of competition and an emphasis on continuing arts education as factors that compel Berlin’s art professionals to build bridges between different mediums and continents in ways that are not necessarily commercial. Telic Arts Exchange, the ambitious east side LA hybrid arts institution, is one of the newest international organizations to lay roots in Berlin. Conceived as a platform for art, architecture, media, and pedagogy, Telic curates exhibitions, stages live performances, and hosts the Public School, an amorphous committee-run educational experiment, in their Chinatown gallery. They selected their satellite location at Brunnenstraße 11 with the help of Berlin based architects SMAQ. The space, simply called Berlin, is a conceptual art gallery that will host exhibitions for at least one year. Their mission statement shows a nuanced understanding of the myths and realities of the German capital “Recognizing that art is experienced through so-called secondary formats of press releases, rumors, websites, advertisements, anecdote, and freely circulating images, Telic decided in 2007 to create a gallery within this particular place.” Even commercial gallerists are drawn to the promise and opportunities in Berlin, real or perceived. Gallerist Javier Peres, whose Peres Projects has branches in both Los Angeles, cites the city’s openness as a guiding impulse in maintaining galleries on both continents. “I like the freedom of Berlin, it is the most free city in the western world at the moment, one can do and not do as they please, and that works just fine for me.”

The Berlin based painter Ernesto Ortiz, another recent CCA graduate drawn here in part by the opportunities the city offers as the one of the largest art markets in Europe, cautiously agrees with Peres’ point about the freedom of Berlin. “When I first went back to San Francisco after being in Berlin for a year, I really felt the stark contrast of control in the street. It was as simple as noticing that people in Berlin ride their bikes wherever they wish, rules be damned. This includes sidewalks or wrong direction in the bike lane. There are no Parisian rules of dress or Italian bans on certain shoes. But then again, this is Germany, albeit a very free city in German with a strong American influence. There is still a very real German character trait of rule-making and passive obedience that is felt here.” While Ortiz enjoys Berlin’s cultural openness, like Telic Arts Exchange, he fully understands the myth of place propagated by the American art world. “This is city is a Mecca of social and historical myth,” he says, “I find ideas about Berlin to not be very developed as far as their complexity of understanding. Or simply put, they are quite superficial. Berlin is what Paris was for a long time. This image of European cultural and aesthetic superiority exist in a collective bourgeois basket of themes. Berlin is chic. And most people who accept this do not bother to question or understand why. For many artists I have met here, just the act of being here seems to be an accomplishment.”

Paul Tyree-Francis, a 26 year-old Berlin based artist via Los Angeles via San Francisco, believes the appeal of expatriating is especially attractive to artists and creative professionals. “The idea of being an outsider is a romantic notion, especially in Berlin. There is literally so much free and open space here. Everyone is hopeful that Berlin will culminate, but it continues not to. There was a piece in the New York Times recently about how the city has historically positioned itself to become a megalopolis and for myriad reasons it just never happens.” Living in a city in transition is undoubtedly appealing to artists and writers and is perhaps the key to the “freedom” that draws people here. But what will happen is Berlin ever reaches the pinnacle it is pushing for? Tyree-Francis laughs, If it ever did culminate it may just be an opportunity for everyone to complain about it and leave.”